All Square: The Ashes Classics of 1972 and 2019

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

England and Australia achieved something very rare at The Kia Oval on Sunday. An Ashes series was drawn two-all for only the second time since 1882-83. (One-all draws are more common and usually quite dull.) The last two-all draw was 1972, when the United Kingdom joined what was then the European Economic Community. I saw at least one day of four of the Tests that year, missing out only on the third, at Nottingham. As in 2019, all the games were intriguing, and there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the two series. John Arlott’s verdict on the 1972 series, in his book on the subject, could equally be said of the 2019 equivalent: “No Test series of modern times between England and Australia has been so even, so entertaining and so constantly changing.”

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Ray Illingworth’s England side held The Ashes, having won them in Australia in 1970-71. Retention in 1972 was secured by victory in the fourth Test at Headingley (I was there on the remarkable final day when Illingworth and Derek Underwood ran through Australia). But the visitors won at The Oval to square the series, thanks to centuries by captain Ian Chappell and his younger brother Greg, and some typically incisive pace bowling from Dennis Lillee.

The 1972 series had no superhuman performance like Steve Smith’s across the campaign or Ben Stokes’ at Headingley. None of the games had particularly thrilling conclusions. But they were hard fought contests, with fascinating fluctuations, and with Chappell’s young side probably having the edge over Illingworth’s seasoned campaigners.

It was one of those series where, if you simply looked at the averages, there could only be one winner. Four Australian batsmen made hundreds (Greg Chappell made two); no English batsman did, though four got into the nineties. Six Australian batsmen averaged over 33; ignoring Barry Wood, who only played once but made 90 on debut at The Oval, one English batsman did. Lillee was the leading wicket taker with 31 at an average of 17.

As in 2019, it was a difficult time for opening batsmen, with one notable exception, the rumbustious Victorian Keith Stackpole, who made 485 runs at an average of 53. He ploughed a lonely furrow, although when the elegant middle order batsman Ross Edwards was pressed into service as an emergency opener at Trent Bridge he made 170. Apart from Wood’s 90 at The Oval and Brian Luckhurst’s 96 at Trent Bridge, no England opener reached fifty.

It wasn’t easy for the upper middle order either. England recalled two veterans, M J K Smith and Peter Parfitt, with mixed results. Australia’s Doug Walters managed 54 runs in seven innings..

It was a series, perhaps like most really entertaining series, certainly like 2018, ultimately dominated by the bowlers. Interestingly, it wasn’t really a situation of bowling partnerships as such. It was Lillee’s first big series, and he was magnificent, breaking the then record for wickets taken by an Australian in England. His opening partner in four of the five Tests was his fellow West Australian Bob Massie, who caused a sensation on debut in the second Test at Lord’s by taking sixteen wickets, with prodigious swing bowling. But it really was a one-off; he took only seven other wickets in the series, and a total of 35 in his career.

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For England the attack was led by John Snow. Already an Ashes hero after Illingworth’s win in 1970-71, Snow was perhaps now at the height of his powers, undoubtedly England’s best and most consistently menacing pace bowler since Fred Trueman – who knows, perhaps Jofra Archer will be the next. Unlike Bob Willis, and Darren Gough, and Steve Harmison, and James Anderson, Snow was used to hunting alone. In this series he had three opening partners, the best of whom was Geoff Arnold.

Heading England’s bowling averages was the redoubtable medium paced left arm spinner Underwood with sixteen wickets at 17 apiece. He might have done even better if he had been picked before the fourth Test (in which he took ten wickets). Illingworth’s preference was always to pick a Northerner – in this case Norman Gifford, born in Ulverston (one wicket for 116 in the series) until the selectors managed to persuade him there was nobody better than Underwood.

You can’t base a Test side on all-rounders: that is one current mantra explaining England’s current consistent inconsistency in the five-day game. Well maybe… But in 1972, Basil d‘Oliveira, in his final series, Tony Greig, in his first, Alan Knott and Illingworth himself, batting at five, six, seven and eight, represented a tower of strength in all departments.

Of course everything now is supposed to be better than it was 47 – ouch – years ago. But captaincy is a special art, and Illingworth and the relatively inexperienced Ian Chappell were both masters. And then there is wicketkeeping. Jonny Bairstow and Tim Paine are journeymen at best. Knott was, simply, a genius. Rod Marsh, nicknamed “Irongloves” had a wonderful series behind and in front of the stumps. People might have laughed then but before he had finished he had overtaken Knott as the world’s leading wicketkeeper.

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The summer got off to a soggy start, which did not help an inexperienced and lately under-achieving Australian squad. There was no great surprise when England won the first Test at Old Trafford by 89 runs. Marsh’s 91 in Australia’s second innings was the highest score of the match. Snow and Arnold shared 13 wickets, while Lillee took six for 66 in England’ s second innings.

The second Test at Lord’s was rendered unforgettable by two outstanding performances. The match started in a reasonably orderly fashion, England finishing on 249 for seven (Greig 54, Massie five for 75. It was on the second day that things started to get really interesting. England were all out for 272 (Massie eight for 64 and then Greg Chappell made an utterly sublime century (“composed and faultless”, Arlott). Australia were all out on the third day for 308. England were then rolled over for 116, Massie taking eight for 54. Australia won by eight wickets.

Australia dominated the third Test and should have won it. They made 315 (Stackpole 114, Snow five for 92) and England could muster only 189, Lillee and Massie each taking four wickets. Then Edwards got his big hundred a and England had to score 451 or bat out nine and a half hours. They got the draw, thanks largely to Luckhurst, Parfitt, d’Oliveira and Greig.

The fourth Test was a strange and slightly grisly affair dominated by some sort of bug that afflicted the pitch which took considerable turn from the first day. Even though Australia batted first they had no answer to Underwood, who took four for 37 and six for 45 as the visitors were dismissed for 146 and 136. The match was over before tea on the third day, England winning by nine wickets.

And so to the final Test at The Oval, which was scheduled for six days as the series was still in the balance. 

Illingworth won the toss and England batted. It was another day of fluctuating fortunes. At one point 138 for two, England collapsed to 181 for eight but the resourceful Knott (92) rallied the tail and they reached 284 (Lillee five for 58). The centrepiece of the second day was a stand of 201 in four hours for the third wicket between the Chappell brothers both of whom made centuries. Edwards made 79 and Australia got a first innings lead of 115. England, with the debutant Wood to the fore, batted steadily second time around and when they were all out for 356 in the middle of the fifth afternoon, Australia needed 242 to win.

It wasn’t easy, and it would have been a lot harder had England not lost three bowlers to injury or illness, Snow, d’Oliveira and Illingworth. There was a vital fifth wicket partnership between Paul Sheahan and Marsh, and that got Australia home.

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Even this very simple account, in particular of the Oval Test, illustrates one striking difference between these two series. Unusually for a book of that era, Arlott’s account gives the batsmen’s strike rates. Discounting those who played only one or two games, England’s highest was Knott, with 52; Australia’s Marsh with 63. Stackpole’s was 51, Greg Chappell’s 44. After the Test series, the two sides played their first one-day international series; the game was on the move.

Still there was no doubt about the entertainment on offer. There were sell-out crowds at most of the games – of course the grounds are bigger now – but the greatest difference must be the television audience. How we hung on the dry and cryptic tones of every lugubrious judgement from Jim Laker.

Anyway, by 1974-75 Ian Chappell was leading one of the most powerful and ruthless cricket teams of all time. Who knows what will confront England Down Under in a couple of years?

Bill Ricquier

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